A century of trumpeting Florida Tourism: Entrepreneurs found early on that they could market sunshine, beauty and man-made tackiness, and thus Florida became the tourist haven it is today.

Sun Journal

February 07, 1997|By Julia Campbell | Julia Campbell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SILVER SPRINGS, Fla. -- It is winter. This is Florida, probably warmer and sunnier than where you are.

A century ago, the first tourists came here to feel the warmth of the tropical sun on their faces. But it was a different world. It was long before trailer parks, Mickey Mouse and bikini-clad women selling hot dogs on highways.

Spanish and French explorers had immortalized "La Florida," the land of flowers, as a kind of Eden, an unspoiled paradise. Only later did other, more forthright visitors tell of a territory sweltering in summer and infested with alligators and mosquitoes.

Since the late 19th century, entrepreneurs have exploited the profitability of sunshine, and promoted a mixture of natural beauty and man-made tackiness to create one of the most visited destinations in the hemisphere. Florida's evolution from thinly inhabited swampland to tropical destination for 41 million tourists a year is a story of sunshine, unbridled commercialism and an American fascination with the new. As early as the 1850s, guidebooks extolled the virtues of Florida's climate and its reported ability to ease various ailments. Florida was even said to be an aphrodisiac, for "heat stimulates powerfully the faculty of reproduction," as Daniel Garrison Brinton, medical doctor turned anthropologist, wrote in his 1869 guidebook.

Good for the soul

Brinton also recognized what millions of Americans would seize upon into the next century: Florida could be good for the soul. The mild climate could eliminate the mental exhaustion brought on by the "harassing strain of our American life, our over-active, excitable, national temperament."

The tourists began arriving shortly after the Civil War. While the wealthy traveled to Europe, the comfortable classes in northern industrial cities went to Florida. These early tourists took steam-powered boats down the St. Johns River from Jacksonville, or cruised up the Ocklawaha River to the Silver Run and its source, the largest freshwater spring in North America.

By the 1870s, 50,000 visitors a year were exploring Silver Springs, Florida's oldest tourist attraction. It is where the glass-bottom boat was invented, in 1878. Live oaks dripped Spanish moss over crystal-clear water as tourists gazed at alligators and schools of fish.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wintered in the town of Mandarin on the St. Johns River in the 1870s, two decades after she wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and embraced the region for the "sort of tumble-down, wild, panicky kind of life" it inspired. She became a tourist attraction in her own right, as visitors paddled by her bungalow on the riverbank.

Before advertising became an American obsession, the sensuous, adoring manner in which writers described Florida helped attract visitors.

Writers extol state

In her book "Palmetto Leaves," Stowe portrayed Florida as a woman of a special type: "If we painted her, we should not represent her as a neat, trim damsel, with starched linen cuffs and collar: she would be a brunette, dark but comely, with gorgeous tissues, a general disarray and dazzle, and with a sort of jolly untidiness, free, easy and joyous." Baltimore poet Sidney Lanier, commissioned to write a guide for the Great Atlantic Coast Railway, described the Ocklawaha River as "the sweetest water lane in the world."

And then Henry Morrison Flagler, a partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Co., realized that paradise could be marketed and sold.

Flagler came to St. Augustine in 1883 on his honeymoon and found the city lacking in the luxurious accommodations that would attract wealthy families. Flagler built the palatial Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1888, and then constructed a string of luxury hotels from St. Augustine to Miami.

Flagler's building of a rail line along the Florida east coast connected St. Augustine to points south and became critical to his success. By 1912, trains were traveled the length of the state to Key West, while another line along the panhandle brought tourism to Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The 1920s became the first boom years: More of the wealthy, and more of the middle class made Florida their vacation destination. Land speculation was rampant. Alligator farms and stands selling key lime pies became part of the landscape. "It was almost like a self-feeding frenzy," says Jesus Mendez, associate professor of history at the University of Miami.

Elaborate attractions

As if they feared it would all disappear, developers began to create more elaborate attractions. Sunshine was no longer thought to be enough. The well-to-do had playgrounds in Palm Beach and at Miami Beach. St. Petersburg and other cities promoted themselves, selling sunshine and a dream.

Faced with competition for visitors, Silver Springs entered the game. In the 1930s the state's most famous showman, Ross Allen, began wrestling alligators and milking rattlesnake venom -- for the pleasure of the tourists, of course.

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